Ashura as a Myth

The Day of Ashura is a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn in the Battle of Karbala for the Shia Muslims. A rich tradition of beliefs and rituals surrounds the commemoration of this day: there are intense, poetic recitations, there are beating drums and chants, narrations of the history of the event, public processions, ceremonial chest beatings, ritual flagellations, and even re-enactments of the battle of Karbala. There is a deeper significance to all of this, which I became aware of only after I had read Karen Armstrong's work on mythology.

Armstrong does not limit herself to the narrow definition of a myth as a 'purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events...' something that is mutually exclusive with an actual historical event. Her conception of a myth is deeper and meaningful. A myth, she says "is an event that - in some sense - happened once, but which also happens all the time."

To my mind, it is difficult to find a more perfect contemporary example of it than the tradition of Ashura. The battle of Karbala is an actual historical event, it happened on 10th of Muharram 61 AH (680 CE). However, in a sense, this battle happens every year in the lives of Shia Muslims.

Armstrong says, a myth "is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction." The death of Husayn forms the core of this tradition.

"Mythology is usually inseparable from ritual. Many myths make no sense outside a liturgical drama that brings them to life, and are incomprehensible in a profane setting." It is the rituals of recitations, narrations, chest-beatings, flagellations, re-enactments that breathe life into Ashura. While it is a very meaningful activity for the Muslims who do it, from the profane perspective, it is incomprehensible and absurd.

"The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience. There are moments when we all, in one way or another, have to go to a place that we have never seen, and do what we have never done before." Ashura forces the participants to go beyond their day to day experience, and takes them to a time and place they have never seen, the day of the battle of Karbala.

"myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave." For the Shias, the martyrdom of Husayn provides the central ethical narrative to their lives; it is not just a historical story, it leaves them with moral understanding of what sort of personal virtues they should aspire to in life.

In mythology "we entertain a hypothesis, bring it to life by means of ritual, act upon it, contemplate its effect upon our lives, and discover that we have achieved new insight into the disturbing puzzle of our world. 

A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth. Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives. A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly. If we do not apply it to our own situation and make the myth a reality in our own lives, it will remain as incomprehensible and remote as the rules of a board game, which often seem confusing and boring until we start to play."

This is how I make sense of the Day of Ashura.

Quotations are from A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.


Haseeb Asif said…
Good read. I would be interested to explore why the Shi'a community, before they were the Shi'a community, felt dissatisfied with the mythological foundations of Sunni Islam. Where was it lacking? Or was the inception of Shi'a Islam merely a political accident?

Interesting connotations the word 'myth' has though. Shiism is a myth in more ways than one, the events of Karbala and the subsequent deaths of the 11 Imams (they weren't all poisoned, that is historical fact) are themselves muddled in creative storytelling.
Anonymous said…
Good read indeed.
@ Haseeb Asif: The Shi'a 'community' has always been Shi'a community. Of course, there are individuals who are embracing Shi'a Islam now, but the community itself has always been there since the time of the Prophet(PBUH) and Imam Ali (as).(In fact, the word Sh'ia itself has been used in the Quran, as well as in Hadees but nowhere is to be seen the word Sunni, in those two most authentic sources for Muslims.) I won't be going into the details here but one can say that those companions of Prophet(PBUH), and there were quite a few, who deemed Ali as the righteous successor of Prophet (PBUH) were Shi'a.
The inception of Shi'a Islam was not a political accident. I would spare you the details here as well. If you want to know a little more about the Shi'as then I recommend you watch this, a presentation at MIT about Shi'a Islam:

(PS. Do NOT take his each and every word as most authentic. He is not a religious authority, but overall, the presentation is quite informative for those who want to know about Shi'as and those who have misconceptions about them.)
karachikhatmal said…
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karachikhatmal said…

Wonderful post. I really enjoyed reading it. Last Moharram I had done what was sort of a dumbed down version of this idea for a documentary called 'Legend of Kerbala'. Will upload it soon and share the link if you're interested, had this insanely interesting portuguese guy who went from Catholic to Sikh to Shia!


"Shiism is a myth in more ways than one, the events of Karbala and the subsequent deaths of the 11 Imams (they weren't all poisoned, that is historical fact) are themselves muddled in creative storytelling."

Growing up, it was very difficult to come to terms with the supernatural recounting of the mythologies as they were narrated as historical fact. In that sense, it becomes very difficult to divorce the 'political' especially as it implies a temporal account of events, which can be difficult.

That said, the roots of the issue can be traced back to several events - as anon stated - which predate Kerbala. The most pertinent is Eid-e-Ghadeer when the Prophet said 'Man kuntu Maula, Ali-un Maula' and in the eyes of many affirmed Ali's succession.

Then there is the controversy about the Prophet's death, where the companions decided that the Prophet was hallucinating and decided to choose a successor amongst themselves. And there is the Battle of Camel etc, and the death/murder of Fatima. My point is that all these events have political undertones - or may even be seen as overtly political - but they keep generating the myth, so that the event of Kerbala emerges as the apotheosis of what had been going on.

But in any case, the political reasons in my mind seem as a way of understanding the struggle in a non-sacred context. Because theologically Shias believe that the Prophet was at a higher plane, that he always existed as a Prophet, and that indeed him, Fatima and the 12 Imams were all Masoom (innocent of sin) all of which - when taken as an article of faith - throw all the events I mentioned in a completely different light. And as Awais's post explains, the participation in these beliefs occurs regularly because that is the way the myth remains alive.
Took me time to read most the remarks, but I really appreciated the post. It proved to be Very useful to me and I am confident to just about all the commenter here! It's always nice when you can not merely be enlightened, but additionally entertained! I'm sure you had fun writing this kind of post.
puzzled said…
this also tells one more thing....husain resisted ,gave his life ,when islam changed from a democracy to an autocracy....a khaliffa is an elected head,yazid was nominated...
His struggle is eternalized in ritual...but it cannot be brought into real life until becomes the force of ethics....."resist the wrong in a just way,don't take lives,give life for a purpose"